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zadie smith on “creativity and refusal”

08/06/13 4 Comments

zadie smithin the essay “creativity and refusal”, author zadie smith explores creativity (the word itself + its application today) and how refusing to conform to norms (or refusing to rebel) comes into play.  with it, she adds some new perspective into how we should view music, design, literature, technology, & other “creative” elements of everyday life.  read it below (via the 12th international literature festival of rome) and discuss any points that stand out to you:

I have been asked to talk to you this evening of “creativity.” It’s one of those slippery words, popular with the organizers of literary events, and I confess I stared at it a long time without gaining any traction. ‘Identity’ is another word of the same type. We must have a genuine need for such terms – we use them so often – but like a pair of well-loved shoes they’ve worn right down to the soles, and now tend to let in more than they keep out. ‘Creativity’ has had an especially long fall from grace. If you pick up the modern culture dictionary Keywords, by the British Marxist critic Raymond Williams, you can trace its decline. As he tells it, ‘creation’ begins life as a prerogative of the gods (as in Augustine’s maxim ‘creatura non potest creare’; the creature who has been created cannot himself create) from which height it descends, in the sixteenth century, into a synonym for “counterfeit”, or “imitation.”  “Or art thou,” asks Macbeth, “But/A dagger of the mind, a false creation/proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” For the Elizabethans, whatever was ‘natural’ was the truth. Whatever was created in the minds of men was in some sense secondary, suspect. Which faint stain of shame lasted a long time – even the Romantics were not entirely free of it. More recently, Williams argues, we use the word to disguise from ourselves the fact that the arts are dominated not by innovation or originality but by “ideological and hegemonic reproduction.” In other words: we like to think the ‘creative arts’ represent a form of rebellion against the way of things, but more often than not they reinforce the status quo. The most painful bit comes at the end: “The difficulty arises when a word once intended, and often still intended, to embody a high and serious claim, becomes so conventional…Thus any imitative or stereotyped literary work can be called, by convention, creative writing, and advertising copywriters officially describe themselves as creative.”

I suppose it is in this last, loosest, sense that I most often hear the word used in my adopted city, New York. A young woman at a party will proudly tell you she works in ‘creative branding.’ The man whose job it is to rid our apartment of cockroaches speaks of finding a ‘creative solution to the problem.’  The marketing department of any large company is considered its ‘creative hub.’ As I write these words it is officially ‘Creative Week’ in New York (“Where advertising, design, and digital media collide with the arts.”) In Manhattan, when a person is described as ‘creative’ it usually means they’ve found a particularly ingenious way to sell you something.

The other place I hear the word a lot, unsurprisingly, is behind the door of 58 West 10th street, where I teach in a Creative Writing program. There, ‘creative’ has transformed from adjective to noun. “I knew from the earliest age,” writes a student, in her application letter, “that I was destined to be a Creative.” In its Sunday supplements, the New York Times regularly tortures my students with lavish articles about the fantasy lifestyle of this person, the ‘Creative.’ She lives in Brooklyn, sits in cafés with a laptop, makes her own hours, and is answerable to no-one. I wouldn’t begrudge any young person this entirely reasonable desire (although personally I have never typed a single creative word in a café) but I sometimes wonder whether it is creative writing itself or this advertised lifestyle that is the main attraction. To create something, as the Gods knew, requires a certain boldness. But though my students are excellent readers and sometimes brilliant intellectually what they write is often, at first, oddly timid. It is writing that aims to please; specifically writing that seeks to fill some perceived niche in the literary market. Often this niche is characterized by that other slippery word ‘identity.’ I heard Salman Rushdie claim recently that the most important advice he can think to give to young Asian writers these days is the following:  “There must be no tropical fruits in the title. No mangoes, no guavas. None of those. Tropical animals are also problematic. Peacock, etc. Avoid that shit.” Just because Asian novels are the fashion you needn’t make a fetish of yourself. Or to put it another way: it is not creative to let the logic of the market into your mind. One of the virtues of novel-writing is, or used to be, its relative independence. Unlike movies or television you do not need to please a committee or get a green light before you set out to write. But what if the phantom committee has been internalized? Sometimes students can seem more attuned to the chatter of publishing PR departments than whatever is going on in their own minds. They plan on penning the ‘Next Great Post-Colonial Novel’ or a ‘Multi-Generational Epic’ or a ‘Delicate Canadian Historical Drama.” At the end of a semester, not long ago, a student asked me: “How did you choose your literary brand?”

Most of my time with students is spent trying to press upon them the idea that creativity is about something more than finding the perfect audience for the perfect product. To my mind, a true ‘Creative’ should not simply seek to satisfy a pre-existing demand but instead transform our notion of what it is we want. A work of art forms its own necessary audience, creates its own taste. In this sense, at the heart of creativity lies a refusal. For a genuinely creative piece of work always declines to see the world as others see it, or as it is commonly described. It refuses received notions and generalities  – it “makes new.” Sometimes this forced change of perspective provokes delight, and a Creative should count herself extremely lucky if that turns out to be the case. But she should also prepare herself for the more usual reactions: discomfort, distaste, confusion, shock – even anger. The genuinely new rarely slips easily into the world-as-it-is. It causes at least a little friction. But I find it’s difficult to cultivate and encourage in students – especially American students – a willingness to risk displeasure. They are brought up on the principle of supply and demand, of entertainers and audience. As antidote, early on in our time together, I assign Kafka, in the hope it will embolden them. Kafka being the type of Creative whose creativity was not rooted in the need for approval. A man for whom creativity itself was a form of refusal.


This is all happening at the high end of the creative industry – my students being the type of kids whose parents don’t mind dropping sixty grand on a writing program. Meanwhile, down at the other end, the urban youth of New York, in particular the young African-Americans, do not require Creative Week to be creative. Their fashion, their language, their music, their visual arts – all are a source of constant innovation. Not one but two entire art forms – jazz and hip-hop – have risen up from this minority community within one century. (Not to mention the various subset activities these art-forms have spawned: bebop, funk, spoken word poetry, street art, break-dancing, scratching, beat-boxing.) But – as is often the way in America – all the way at the other end of the class ladder you find a strange mirroring of what happens at the top. The sad state of contemporary Hip-Hop is an obvious example. The creative energy is still there, as it was at Hip-Hop’s inception, but so is a new keenness to be co-opted, monetized. Once an underground, resistant culture, now rappers speak enthusiastically of “becoming a brand.” Happily they make deals with sportswear manufacturers and perfume companies, hawk high-end drinks in their videos, and lend their hard-won aura of authenticity to various aspects of the socio-economic status quo. Some of these gestures are as old as the hills. The surest sign of a successful rapper, for example, is his willingness to rap a verse over the anodyne pop song of a white starlet. She sings; he raps; she tries to dance; he stands behind her, looking impressed. If you squint it looks no different than that old tap dancer Bill Robinson clapping his hands and grinning as Shirley Temple dances in front of him. The black artist lends authenticity to the white star; the white star legitimizes the black artist. The music may have changed but the deep structure remains the same.

Such cultural repetitions make me nervous; they are primarily nostalgic, and nostalgia is the enemy of creativity, and the driving force behind “ideological and hegemonic reproduction.” Over and over in Hip-Hop we see what began as a creative refusal of the mainstream culture ending up as its support act. We used to call this ‘selling out’. Now it’s called ‘consolidating your brand.’ Rappers themselves like to argue that “getting paper” (making money) is itself a creative act of rebellion against the socio-economic status quo in America. But there seems to me a qualitative difference between monetizing the end product and monetizing the process itself, a line between selling a record and selling yourself. I confess it depressed me to hear that a rap collective as innovative as the LA-based Odd Future recently signed on to make an advert for the soft drink Mountain Dew. Not to star in it, mind you, but to actually design and direct it. (I was later cheered to hear their efforts were too offensive for the company to use.) To think of your creativity as a brand – or as at the service of a brand – is to build into the creative process the consistency and audience approval that products require. It is to think of yourself as product. And products cannot refuse their buyers. The whole point of a product is to slot into the world-as-it-is, seamlessly.


I grew up in the age of grunge and refusal, the tail-end of that generation of people who still feel sad when they see Iggy Pomp in a TV advert for car insurance or Bob Dylan in a deal with Starbucks. I was fifteen when Kurt Cobain killed himself. I was raised on the idea that there is a deadly tension between creativity and the market. I imagine that for the generation under me this idea of the ‘sell-out’ is considered as sentimental and impractical as those other 60’s throwbacks like free love and peace on earth. They grew up largely unmolested by the fear that the logic of the market is in any way in conflict with the act of creation. This must partly be because they grew up in a world of digital technology in which the seamlessness of creativity and capital is real. What is Apple if not “creativity” and “brand” working together in perfect synergy? Perhaps I should be teaching students about the creativity of Steve Jobs rather than Kafka? But here we get to the limits of this word ‘creativity.’ For though I may, on occasion, be so in love with my iPhone as to call it “a work of art,” the creativity embedded within it is of a different kind than the creativity that brought “In the Penal Colony” into existence, and I think it a little dangerous to confuse the two. The ultimate purpose of creativity in technology is to be frictionless, in form and function. Its final aim is not to challenge but to facilitate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – a tool, if its working well, should feel simply like an extension of us, and should work in the same way and equally well for every soul who picks it up. We get used to tools – they become invisible to us (Unless we happen to be hackers or especially technologically literate.) The creativity of art, by contrast, is something we never ‘get used to.’ I read “In the Penal Colony” every year with my students and every year it is a new kind of provocation, a challenge to the way I think and behave, to the things I claim I believe. The creativity of art is different from the creativity of tools: it forces us to be active in the face of it and always individual. Your reading of Kafka will not be the same as mine, but both of us will use our iPhones in much the same way. Still, it’s true that in the world of creative technology each new iteration of hardware or software does induce a jolt in us – forcing us to see our world differently, not unlike a work of art – and certainly for a day or two, or even a month, we may find ourselves confounded by some element of a new design, or refusing it outright (as is happening presently with Google Glass, which, in America, is being preemptively banned and legislated against in various contexts.) But very soon, almost sooner than we realize, we get used to the new design, whatever it is, and it begins to become invisible to us, we cannot imagine it was ever any other way.

The iPad, the iPhone et al – these may be an expression of Steve Jobs’ creativity, but they are also products, and for all the talk of revolutionary freedom in the adverts, all those billboards of Einstein and Hendrix above the slogan ‘Think Different’, Apple the company slipped seamlessly into the world-as-it-is, with all its iniquities, as we learnt when stories of work conditions in the Foxconn factory in China began to surface. To really ‘think differently’ necessitates some kind of refusal, and products – no matter how beautifully designed – simply do not have that freedom; they exist only to please, which is why Jobs’ creative brand utopia is not an especially good model for creative artists. It feels important to insist that when I say “I don’t know how I ever lived without my iPhone” (and I say it all the time) I am not speaking of the same kind of creative experience as when I say: “I was a different person before I read – and re-read -“In the Penal Colony.”


However, there is something very important the digital era has to teach young Creatives: un-sentimentality. A passion for the new. Technology is fundamentally un-nostalgic and young people who want to be creative would do well to cultivate this instinct. In my experience, fighting nostalgia, as an artist, is a full time job. Never more so than when I lived in Italy, which seems to me to be a country perversely designed to make you feel both awe at the cultural achievements of the past and a great doubt that you could ever add to them yourself. It’s not so easy to paint in the city of Michelangelo, nor to make music in the land of Verdi, or write sentences in the shadow of Dante. If ever there was a country over-burdened by a legacy of creativity, it’s Italy. Of course, a great cultural history can also be a wonderful advantage to a young Creative; the better you know your own cultural history, as TS Eliot argued, the less likely you are to repeat it in a formulaic or dull manner. Nostalgia may be the enemy of creativity – but history, properly understood, is its friend. When I lived here I always felt that the young creative people of Italy were in some sense deprived access to the full greatness of their cultural history by a conservative mass media that curiously insists on its nostalgic aspects; that insists, for example, that the 50s and 60s in Rome represent the very pinnacle of modern Italian life, never to be forgotten or equaled. Alberto Sordi and Anna Magnani movies play in rotation on the television; the chat shows continually reminisce about the good old days, and there are so many magazine articles about Agnelli you’d think he was still alive. There’s something deliberately soporific about all that, as if an older generation refuses to get out of the way to allow the flowering of something new. I think a young Creative has to learn to be a little ruthless about the past, and that can be hard to do in a culture preoccupied with heritage. Surely one of the reasons young Creatives from around the globe flock to New York is that city’s impatience with nostalgia. The town seems to change week by week; old buildings are torn down, new ones arrive. No doubt it’s brutal, but it’s what makes it a city on the side of the young. It’s always looking ahead, never sentimental about what came before.


I should confess before I finish that I don’t think of myself as particularly creative. At best I am a good synthesizer, someone who, in Eliot’s sense, reorganizes and rearranges the materials of the past. If I am occasionally able to ‘make it new’ this is wholly due to this tendency towards refusal I’ve been trying to describe. As a child, born into a certain class, into a particular race and gender, my first creative act was to refuse, in various ways, the destiny England thought it had in store for me. My writing springs from this same instinct. Even if my publishers print my name in the same font on the covers of all my books, I still want what is inside to be free to mutate, transform and surprise, and otherwise fundamentally disturb a ‘brand.’ I like writing that is inconsistent and a little unruly. And like all creative writers, I want to rescue this word ‘creative’ from its recent devaluation. Because there’s something vital and radical about the creative arts, when they’re good. They’re not just well-designed tools or beautiful products, they’re experiences, in which space is made for you to wrangle with what you are offered, re-interpret it, or refuse it, in an ongoing and unique engagement. They may be sold as product but they can refuse the form and identity of products. And in their habit of creative refusal they can encourage a broader creative refusal that may actually have some teeth to it.

What if the most creative thing we can do right now is refuse? Show ourselves not content to slot our energies into the smooth running of the present order? Imagining the world other than it is feels like a creative duty right now, and everywhere you look a principle of refusal seems to be taking hold. The Internet activists ‘Anonymous’ refuse an identity at all, while the global Occupy movement also took the form of a refusal: the refusal to name leaders or even policies. Your recent election here in Italy bore some traces of this same legacy: the refusal of business as usual. And we’re beginning to see artists refusing ‘content providers’ all together – bypassing publishers, record companies and TV stations in creative and interesting ways. The end of the financial order, or of the political order, or of a certain version of the cultural and media industries – we were always warned that when these familiar certainties collapsed, anarchy would follow, anarchy being the refusal of everything. We have been taught to fear it – but the moment is upon us and why should it be purely nihilistic? It might be the most creative thing to happen to us in a long time.

related: behind kanye’s mask 31 days of creativity with food | “in the penal colony” by franz kafka


6 tips for breaking bad habits


written by jeff haden for


Want to change an old habit? You probably should: One study determined that over 40% of the “decisions” we make every day aren’t really decisions.

They’re habits.

Much of the time we don’t really make decisions. We do what we’ve done before, and that makes us less productive, less effective, less healthy and fit—less everything—than we could be.

So what can we do? Change an old habit into a new habit.

While changing a habit isn’t easy, it is simple—especially if you follow the process described by Charles Duhigg, the author of the bestselling book The Power of Habit. (Definitely worth a read, especially if you want to harness the power of habits to improve not just yourself but also your team or business.)

The key is to understand that you can’t extinguish a bad habit, but you can change that habit—and still get the same “reward” you currently get from your old habit.

Here’s how:

1. Redefine “must.”

Think about your typical day. Very little of what you think you “have” to do actually must be done that way.

Think you need that cup of coffee? You don’t. Somewhere along the line you started drinking coffee, decided you like it, decided you liked the caffeine kick… and now it’s an “indispensable” habit. But it’s not—you do need to drink liquids but you don’t need to drink coffee. (Don’t feel bad; I have a huge Diet Mountain Dew habit.)

The same is true with almost everything you do during your workday. Maybe you call distribution to “check in” every day even though you already get incredibly detailed reports. Maybe you send an email instead of making a call when you’re afraid of a confrontation. Everything you do is based on some amount of reasoning…but how often is what you’re doing the best way to accomplish the goal?

Rarely, if you’re like the average person—otherwise we’d all be extremely healthy, wealthy, and wise.

“Must” is a feeling that results from a habit. The only way to change a habit is to first decide that “must” can actually be negotiated or even eliminated.

As an example, let’s assume your habit is to check your email first thing. You want to change that habit because you tend to get bogged down by a flood of correspondence and you would prefer to hit your workday running in a different direction.

2. Determine the cue.

Every habit is based on a simple loop: cue, routine, and reward. The cue is the trigger that, based on some craving, shifts your brain into autopilot and initiates the routine.

Since your habit is to check your email first, you may be craving a sense of immediate control, to know what fires may have started, what issues may have popped up, or even what good things occurred overnight. Or you may be craving a reconnection with employees, customers, or even friends.

Whenever you feel an urge for a habit, that urge is the cue.

3. Determine the routine.

The routine is easy to determine. Your routine is the manifestation of the habit. It’s the cookie at break time or the Web surfing at lunch or, in this case, checking email right away.

4. Determine the reward.

The reward isn’t always so easy to determine. Maybe the reward you get from your habit is a feeling of control. Maybe it’s an, “Oh good… nothing awful happened overnight,” feeling of relief. Maybe it’s the, “I’m the captain of my universe and it feels good to mobilize the troops,” feeling you get from firing off a bunch of emails to your staff.

Think about what craving your habit is really satisfying. Going to the break room for a cup of coffee might not really be satisfying a coffee urge; what you really may be craving is the chance to hang out with other people and getting coffee is just an excuse.

Work hard to identify the reward, because to change a habit the reward has to stay the same. You won’t deny yourself the reward—you’ll just make the way you get that reward a lot more productive or positive..

5. Change the routine.

Now that you know your cue and your reward, “all” you have to do is insert a new routine—one that is triggered by your cue and that also satisfies your current reward.

Say you check email right away because of an urge to immediately know about any overnight disasters… but you also don’t want to get bogged down by all the less than critical emails.

Simply find another way to accomplish your status check. Walk the floor instead. Make a couple quick phone calls. Check in with key employees. Get your status-check fix the old-fashioned way: in person.

Of course that doesn’t work if you manage remote employees. In that case, you could do what a friend does. He set up a separate email account, Employees only send emails to that account if an issue is truly an emergency. He checks that account when he gets to work (and a bunch of times at night, since he’s admittedly a worrier) and saves his “regular” email for later in the morning.

6. Write it down.

According to Duhigg, studies show that the easiest way to implement a new habit is to write a plan. The format is simple:

When (cue), I will (routine) because it provides me with (reward).

In this example, the plan is:

When I get to work, I will check in with key employees first because that lets me take care of any urgent issues right away.

Do that enough times, and eventually your new habit will be automatic—and you’ll be more productive.

Then move on to another habit!

related: why stress makes it tough to break a habit (and what you can do about it) | an approach to ending chronic procrastination

“be wrong as fast as you can”

01/29/13 1 Comment


written by hugo lindgren for nytimes:

Here’s a partial, redacted-for-the-sake-of-my-dignity list of stuff I once aspired to write but never did: a “Mamma Mia!”-esque rock opera called “Bastards of Young,” based on the songs of the Replacements. A sitcom set in Brooklyn that inverts “I Love Lucy,” so that the wife plays the stable, amiable breadwinner while her lovable loon of a husband hatches ridiculous schemes, often involving the production of artisanal goods. A thriller about the ultimate rogue trader who concocts a single, diabolical transaction to blow up the financial system. An HBO show, called “Upstate,” about a burned-out corporate raider who returns to his hometown outside Buffalo to save his father’s failing liquor store and ends up trying to rescue the whole town from the double scourge of unemployment and alcoholism. Too depressing? How about this: A reality show in which retired hockey greats like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier compete against each other coaching teams of — ready for the deal clincher? — inner-city kids who’ve never been on ice skates.

If you had the time, believe me, I could flesh out these ideas for you, explain their origins, describe in fine detail my vision of the characters and plots and how it would all coalesce into something awesome.

Or not. For at least 25 years, I’ve been serial daydreaming like this, recording hundreds of ideas in a sequence of little notebooks that I have carried around and then stacked in a shoe box in my closet, a personal encyclopedia of undone to-do’s. Sometimes, when I’m searching for something in my closet and I see the box, I have a flashback to my first-grade report card: “Hugo has the gift of a rich, active imagination, but needs to work on his follow-through skills.”

My situation, I know, is not unique. Who doesn’t have big plans they never get around to acting on? Everybody swaps ideas with his friends about the excellent TV show they’d make or the groundbreaking movie they’d write. And a couple of my grand schemes got an inch or two off the ground — an agent lunch, a pitch meeting, a trip to L.A., a flurry of e-mail filled with exclamation points — though never much higher than that. And along the way, I also became editor of the magazine you are now reading, so it’s not as if I became mired exclusively in a world of delusional ambition. It’s just that for way too long, I held on to the fantasy of a completely different professional life, and I can’t help wondering why certain creative endeavors just seemed impossible to make happen.

I know, writers have been complaining for eons about the weight of their burden, and it’s not attractive. But I’ve been around it long enough to know that writing anything good that’s longer than a paragraph isn’t easy for anybody, except for maybe J. J. Abrams. You can’t explain how people do it. Some of the most successful screenwriters, novelists, television producers and rock-opera librettists I know are about a hundred times lazier than I am. They take long afternoon naps, play lots of pickup basketball and appear to accomplish little or nothing for months at a time. And let me tell you, their ideas do not all crackle with scintillating originality.

So what am I missing? What is that elusive thing that turns some people’s daydreams into their next novel for F.S.G.?

Earlier in my professional life, as I began to do all right as an editor, I naïvely discounted it as something I never intended to stick with. A respectable occupation, I thought, while preparing myself for the Masterwork of Spectacular Brilliance that would eventually define me.

One of my pet theories about why I could never actually produce anything of brilliance was that I was cursed with a comfortable existence. What might have been my creative prime was spent in New York City in the 1990s, a flush time for the young and college-educated. Magazine-editor jobs paid O.K. and were relatively easy to get, especially compared with now. Maybe I would’ve been better off in the 1970s, when a young person with ambitions like mine had to take a hard job as a means to his artistic ends. Would such sacrifice, I wondered, have sharpened my desire to make it as a writer?

All you have to do is read Mark Jacobson’s classic New York magazine depiction of cabdrivers in the 1970s to know that’s a joke. The story is about nighttime cabbies who aspired to be actors or poets or playwrights. Jacobson was one of them. His original plan was to drive three nights a week, write three nights a week and party one night a week. But as he watched his fellow drivers get sucked in to the working life, he realized how the daily grind slowly robbed them of their dreams.

“The Big Fear,” Jacobson writes, “is that times will get so hard that you’ll have to drive five or six nights a week instead of three. The Big Fear is that your play, the one that’s only one draft away from a possible showcase, will stay in your drawer. The Big Fear is thinking about all the poor stiff civil servants who have been sorting letters at the post office ever since the last Depression and all the great plays they could have produced. The Big Fear is that, after 20 years of schooling, they’ll put you on the day shift. The Big Fear is you’re becoming a cabdriver.”

My big fear, of course, was that I was becoming an editor. I won’t lie. For a long time, I considered this an unacceptable outcome. I don’t know if anyone ever told me, “Those who can’t write, edit,” or if I made that up on my own, but that little aphorism haunted me. Meanwhile, my grandiose writing projects were all going nowhere for the same tedious reason. The minute I tried to commit them to paper, or otherwise turn them into something tangible, my imagination coughed and sputtered like the cheap Renault convertible my girlfriend drove in college. I’d write a bit of dialogue using that miraculous software that automatically formats it into a screenplay for you, and I’d be instantly paralyzed from the neck up. Here was incontrovertible evidence that I wasn’t half as good as I imagined myself to be. The voices I heard so clearly and powerfully in my head became inert and alien on the page. I was surprised by how mortally embarrassed you can be by writing something nobody else will ever read. Even looking back over those one- sentence descriptions of TV ideas in the first paragraph of this essay, I am humbled by how inadequately they convey the vividness they had as I conjured them. It’s like hearing a recording of my own voice. That can’t be how I sound. Oh, but it is.

I recently saw a Charlie Rose interview with John Lasseter, a founder of Pixar, about the creative process behind his movies. Pixar’s in-house theory is: Be wrong as fast as you can. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the creative process, so get right down to it and start making them. Even great ideas are wrecked on the road to fruition and then have to be painstakingly reconstructed. “Every Pixar film was the worst motion picture ever made at one time or another,” Lasseter said. “People don’t believe that, but it’s true. But we don’t give up on the films.”

Hugely successful people tend to say self-deprecating stuff like this when they go on “Charlie Rose.” But I heard something quite genuine in Lasseter’s remarks, an acknowledgment of just how deep into the muck of mediocrity a creative project can sink as it takes those first vulnerable steps from luxurious abstraction to unforgiving reality.

I could never forge through this. My confidence always collapsed under the weight of my withering self-criticism. I couldn’t bear the awfulness and keep going. Even as I’m writing this essay, I have to stop myself from scrolling back to previous parts and banging my forehead against the keyboard as I see how short I’ve fallen of my expectations. My mind goes uncontrollably to whether it might be better to scrap the whole thing and write a different Riff — like, I’ve got a few stray ideas in my notebook here about the glassy office tower they’re building next door to where I live and how it obliterates what’s left of the spirit of Greenwich Village. Or about this ’80s band called Talk Talk that started out making bland pop hits like Duran Duran but then rejected fame and made a couple of crazy, weird, beautiful records until mysteriously vanishing. That Riff will practically write itself, I just know it.

A promiscuous imagination like this is dangerous for writers. As an editor, I can see that clearly. I know that the next brilliant brainstorm is never going to be the one that will just write itself, any more than the last one did. Ideas, in a sense, are overrated. Of course, you need good ones, but at this point in our supersaturated culture, precious few are so novel that nobody else has ever thought of them before. It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution. The more I experienced this frustration firsthand, the more I came to appreciate how naturally suited I am to the job I used to think I never wanted to have when I grew up. Magazines give me a healthy, satisfying amount of creative license, as well as a very defined responsibility. Journalism keeps my imagination from flying off into the ether. At the core of everything is reporting, a real event. And editing allows me to collaborate with people whose talents make up for my weaknesses, especially writers who don’t seize up at the sight of a blinking cursor.

At the same time, the protracted period of realizing all this has been necessary. Struggling with my own creative process has helped me appreciate the difficulties that others go through, while fighting to subdue my own self-criticism has left me open to the possibilities of fledgling ideas that look wobbly out of the gate. Daydreams, weirdly enough, have made me a better editor.

Plus, if I’d understood this all perfectly when I started out, embraced editing right from the beginning, I’d be ready to move on to something else now. Like maybe I’d open a civilized sports bar that served only bourbon and sold vintage Pendleton shirts —

But now I must contend with my editor for this story, who just stopped by my office to see when I’ll stop beating my head against the keyboard so he can get this to the copy desk. There’s no chance of backing out now. He insisted it wasn’t as dreadful as I feared, gave me good advice on how to end it, and also remarked that my reality-show idea is not bad, but does it have to be about hockey? Well, no, I said, suddenly diverted into fantasy land, the conceit could be broader, maybe about how to coach amateurs more generally, so that the competition changed season to season — badminton, bobsledding, roller derby, square dancing. Rock operas!

We had a laugh and then got back to work.

related: slow mastery: 10 great achievements that took time | 100% life: muoyo okome

jesús faces death with faith & bravado

01/23/13 1 Comment

Peering out the bus window, Jesus Garcia, 19, travels home after receiving chemotherapy at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.  It was first found in 2006 that Jesus had a calcification in his right temporal lobe.  Even after four surgeries taking place between 2009 and 2012; the tumor continued to grow.

meet jesús garcia, a young man from cali who is approaching his 4th brain surgery since the age of 13.  the teenager let the latimes cover his trying experience so, in his words, “other dudes with cancer would know that everything would be OK.”  read the newspaper’s feature on him below, beautifully written by thomas curwen.  at the end of it, you’ll find a photo gallery which shares more of jesús’s story through arkasha stevenson’s lens:

Jesús García saw no reason to be afraid of death.

“It’s not good to fear anything,” he once said. “Death is always around, but you’ve got to laugh at death.”

After leaving the hospital that afternoon in early May, he boarded the bus at Vermont and Sunset and headed south. The shops and congestion of Koreatown streamed by.

He didn’t bother calling his mother. She was in Idaho and would get the news soon enough. Besides, she would only start to cry, which was more than he could deal with. He turned off his phone to avoid any calls. He just wanted to hang out with friends, smoke some weed and play video games.

The bus stopped at Pico Boulevard, and he made his transfer. He was feeling better than he had in the morning when he was dizzy and had thrown up.

Jesús had just turned 19 and had hopes for himself. He held his chin high, had a straight-ahead gaze and dressed carefully, coordinating black baggy shorts with a black and white T-shirt, a gray and white hoodie and white Converse sneakers with red stripes. A Yankees cap covered a scar that stretched from his forehead to above his right ear.

He got off the bus at 5th Avenue in Arlington Heights and walked up the street. He found his friends hanging out in the back bedroom of their apartment. He didn’t share details of his visit to the hospital, and they didn’t ask.

The week before he had received an MRI, and the doctor had just given him the results. The tumor in Jesús’ brain was larger now and had been bleeding. Jesús wasn’t discouraged. He had faith in his doctors.

Since his first seizure eight years ago, he had had three operations, the last in September 2011. There had also been radiation treatments and chemotherapy. Jesús thought he was doing fine.

He was going to get his GED and get a job to help support his mother. He even thought about being a cop; only he’d go after the hard-core gangsters and not harass the kids on the block.

He loved his family and was loyal to his friends. He had no intention of leaving any of them or making a plan for his final days. Leave that for someone older, for someone who had more money, more opportunities.

For Jesús, the world was just coming into focus, and no matter how difficult the treatments or debilitating their effect, he was determined to live.

Everything is fine, he said to his mother over the phone that night. Don’t worry.

Home was a converted two-car garage in the neighborhood of Exposition Park in South Los Angeles, where the streets were narrow and the houses small and tidy. The entrance was off a cul-de-sac, long in need of paving.

Jesús and his family had moved four times in the last seven years. Once their apartment burned down; once a relative threw them out.

Another time their landlord accused Jesús of being in a gang and they had to leave, and their most recent apartment was infested with bedbugs.

Last December, his mother, Valentina González, left for Idaho to visit a friend and decided to stay when she found a cheaper place to live and a better job for her boyfriend.

When Jesús learned in February that the garage was available, he and his sister Jessica, 22, moved in. Another sister, Claudia, 23, eventually joined them, bringing her 2-year-old daughter, Itzel.

They paid $750 in rent, about what Jesús received in disability each month. The rest of the family’s monthly income — about $1,400 — came from child support, unemployment insurance, welfare and whatever relatives could send them.

The garage’s owner was a family friend who tried to make the two rooms comfortable. He laid down carpet in the back room. Jesús and his sisters could keep the cockroaches away, but they had to put up with the rats that came out at night.

Above the door, Jesús placed a memorial to St. Jude. There were family photos on one wall, and in the back room, they hung a small print with verses from Isaiah. “Confiad en Jehová perpetuamente.” Trust in the Lord always.

In mid-May, Jesús was prescribed a steroid that controlled swelling and made him feel more comfortable.

He was also beginning a new type of chemotherapy; his doctor was unwilling to give up. The drugs and the treatment were enough to blur the line between hope and denial, and the summer started to feel normal.

Valentina, 39, had returned to Los Angeles by then, and moved in to care for her son. She had brought her youngest children, Jocelyn, 3, and Stuart, 15 months. Jesús was her oldest boy, the one she called “Perro” — dog — an affectionate nickname from the time when he was little and wouldn’t leave her side.

He was 6 when his father left the family. Jesús idolized the man whose temper often turned violent when he drank.

On Wednesdays, Jesús and Valentina rode the Expo Line and the bus to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for tests. He would put in his earbuds and listen to his favorite bands: South Park Mexican, Kartel de las Calles, Cypress Hill.

Appointments were in the early afternoon, and before heading inside, they would buy a burrito from one of the food trucks parked on the street. He could never get enough to eat, one of the steroid’s side effects.

He was 13 when a brain scan revealed a lesion in his right temporal lobe, too small to worry about, but then came more headaches and seizures.

Almost three years later, he had his first surgery. Six months after that, he needed another operation. What had been diagnosed as a low-grade, non-aggressive tumor had become malignant.

As Jesús lay in the hospital, he saw other children who were sicker than he was. He started to think about his life and how he was messing up.

He bullied his sisters. He ran away from his mom. He got into fights at school. For a while, he hung out with a tagging crew. He said that the police had cited him four times for carrying weed, a lighter and rolling papers.

“I had these demons in my head,” he said earlier this year, “and I then realized I was lucky not to have it as bad as other kids in the hospital.”

By July, the tumor had spread throughout the right side of his brain and had begun to press against the left. The doctors, looking for a miracle, proposed a fourth surgery.

“No quiero que lloren.” No crying, he told his family when they gathered to view his most recent MRI.

Jesús was well known in the cancer clinic, and when a friend there learned that he was a fan of Ramon Ayala, she made arrangements for him to meet the King of the Accordion at a concert at the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal CityWalk.

Early in the set, Ayala dedicated a song to Jesús, a ballad called “Que me Entierren Cantando.”

“Nothing matters to me if one day I die,” Ayala sang in Spanish, “only that they bury me singing.”

The song’s carefree spirit had always appealed to Jesús, and he tried to live that way, even if it meant ignoring the truth.

If he felt weak, he said he just needed to lift some weights. If he felt pain, it was because he slept wrong. If he stumbled, it was his shoes, and if his family annoyed him, it wasn’t because the steroid made him irritable. It was because they were lazy.

One afternoon, a therapist from a hospice, Trinity Kids Care, stopped by, and helped the family make a poster using paint spread on the palms of their hands. When they were done, Jesús wrote his name on the drop cloth as other patients had.

“Faith + Hope Everything is possible,” he added.

He wanted to believe that his life could help others, and he was eager to share what he had learned in the course of being sick. His message was simple. “You can always change,” he said. “You always have to have faith — and love your family.”

Even after learning the risks of another surgery — paralysis, blindness — Jesús didn’t believe it possible that he would lose his independence.

“That’s not even one-half percent in my head, not even the slightest decibel. Everything is going to be good,” he said. “Positive. I’ll give it to you in Spanish. Positivo.

The operation lasted seven hours. Afterward the ICU nurse asked him where he was. Even in the haze of anesthesia, Jesús made a joke.

“Seis Banderas,” he said. Six Flags.

She laughed. “You have to say it in English.”

“You want it in Chinese?” he asked.

On Sept. 27, Jesús came home to the garage. It had been five weeks since the surgery, and he was excited to be out of the hospital. He had grown bored with physical therapy.

A neighbor greeted him at the van and helped push his wheelchair over the hard-packed dirt in the backyard, which was crisscrossed with clotheslines and crowded with a dusty accumulation of toys, tools, tables, recyclables, tires, bicycles and motorcycles.

They lifted him over the unfinished threshold. Afternoon sunlight angled through the door. Water was running in the kitchen sink where Jocelyn was being bathed. Claudia had rearranged the back room for the hospital bed.

Tired from his day, Jesús had no strength to stand. The neighbor and Valentina got him to his feet and into bed. The windowless room still held the heat of the day.

No one had told him why he had been discharged. No one said that the tumor had grown back and all options had been exhausted. One nurse wondered if he knew. Another believed his doctor should tell him; the doctor left that decision to Valentina.

It was clear to everyone who saw him that Jesús had no short-term memory, and the news would be needlessly distressing.

Sleeping during the day, waking at night, he lost track of time, and his world became a blend of memories, dreams and reality. He listened to the singing birds from the movie “Rio,” as the children danced on the bed beside him. He felt Stuart shake the rails of his bed, heard Claudia scold Itzel, who started to cry, and he smelled tortillas crisping on the stove.

Valentina fixed whatever he wanted — chicken mole, albóndigas, pupusas, empanadas, caldo de res — and there was always ice cream and cookies.

Valentina and Claudia puzzled over his shaky voice and the strange things he said. Once he saw the devil standing among the plaid hoodies at the foot of the bed. Another time he thought his feet and hands had changed places. The hospice tried to help with medications.

In spite of his helplessness, his mother and sister still recognized his bravura. His face — his handsome features, the angular jaw, full lips, long eyelashes — had grown swollen from the steroid, the skin marked with acne, but he still seemed happy and made jokes that doubled them over.

One October night as the Santa Ana winds were blowing, the pastor from their church stopped by. It was close to midnight. He often kept late hours, and the garage had become one of the regular stops for the church’s prayer group. Tonight he came alone.

His hard soles echoed on the linoleum floor as he walked through the front room. He laid his Bible on the bed and poured olive oil into his palm and placed the hand on Jesús’ forehead.

He wept and prayed, the cadence of each sentence matching the length of each breath, as he dispelled the goblin-like demons — como un tipo de duendes — that he found in the room and asked for a fence of angels — un vallado de ángeles — to be placed around the family.

When he was finished, the garage was silent but for the whirring of the ceiling fan.

Jesús lay with his eyes closed. Valentina rubbed a hand through his hair.

Two weeks later, Jesús had his first seizure in many months.

He had stopped getting out of bed. His brain was shutting down.

A few days before, he smiled at the memory of a girl he once knew and at the time he played second base for his Little League team. He wondered out loud about all the other girlfriends he could have had and all that he could have done in his life.

Breathing became difficult. His lungs and his chest labored as if he were drawing air through a wet cloth, and he stopped eating.

The names of two funeral homes were stuck on the refrigerator. A charity promised to pay for cremation and a memorial. Jesús had once told Jessica that he wanted his ashes to be scattered at sea, and he wanted some marijuana to be thrown in as well.

“It’s me and Mary Jane all the way to the end,” she recalled him saying.

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the pastor and the prayer group gathered around his bed and filled the room with their voices, raising their dissonant prayers to God.

That night his color deepened. Claudia called the pastor back, and Jesús’ uncle, Ramón González, stopped by. In the absence of his father, Jesús had often turned to Ramón for guidance and support.

Chiquillo,” Valentina heard Ramón say, “estoy aquí, mijo. Te quiero mucho.” I love you very much.

As Jesús reached out for his uncle, Valentina counted three gasps, and then her son was still. She began to wail.

Friends and other family members soon arrived, and Valentina stayed with her son.

Through her tears, she stroked his hair, cupped his jaw with her hand and pinched the bridge of his nose, as if memorizing each feature by her touch.

The blood had drained from his face, and his cheeks and neck were no longer swollen. She thought he looked beautiful again, lying beneath a white blanket, his eyes closed, his jaw tied shut with a flowered sash.

Jesús was once asked if 19 is too young to die. “It’s never too early, and it’s never too late,” he said. “Everyone’s life is borrowed.”

photos via framework (click on the pics for a closer look + captions):

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